In this episode, we host Agata Clevenger, whose impressive career includes leadership roles at both David’s Bridal and Destination Maternity. We take a look at how branding helps companies succeed in fixed categories with short consumption cycles. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Agata Clevenger: Really, neither one of those brands is a brand that can grow the pie or the market. You’re dealing with a constrained amount. The market is only so big, you really have to figure out how you’re going to capture what’s already there.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding, I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and your host for today’s interview with Agata Clevenger, the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Destination Maternity, which is a fascinating business. She came also from David’s Bridal. These are high emotion, short time horizon retail concepts, omni-channel really, that are focused on building strong connections with female consumers. Agata will take us through an amazing and interesting career with twists and turns, she’s brilliant, she’s high energy, she’s really fun to talk to, enjoy.
Here we are in the lovely headquarters of Destination Maternity in Moorestown, New Jersey with Agata Clevenger and soon to be something else. We were talking and you’re in the midst of last name changing, which is not a pleasant thing apparently, but thanks for joining us.
Agata: Thank you for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure, and thank you for hosting us. Amazing, interesting career with quite a journey. Would you mind starting by just telling us a little bit about the twists and turns of the career journey up to this point?
Agata: Sure, well I came to the US when I was 21 years old and I changed my major. I decided I was going to study Economics and International Business and then that’s what I studied. When I graduated I was lucky enough to get enrolled in this financial leadership program with Johnson and Johnson. I don’t know if you guys have heard those programs. General Electric has a similar thing, or UniLever.
They essentially take people who are coming out of school and they put them in high exposure positions where every eight or so months you end up having a new job with a different company or a different responsibility. You get a lot of access to executives, you get a lot of additional training, and it’s a really fabulous experience in general if you can get in one of those programs. They are quite competitive. Every time you come in for a session together you see fewer people. You’re like, ‘Okay, where did my five friends go that I had from the last session we were in?’
It was a great experience. I got to work on the finance side with supporting marketing on Tylenol, Motrin, St. Joseph’s aspirin, I worked on Splenda. I also moved to the pharmaceutical side and worked on biologics that were in development, so they were being tested on animals and also on humans.
Bill: Sure, all three phases, yeah, the whole thing.
Agata: All three phases, yes, you got that. I was lucky enough to work for Centicore which is part of J&J …
Bill: Sure, Remicade right?
Agata: There you go.
Bill: First Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, amazing. Yeah.
Agata: Absolutely. Some of those compounds I got to work as well so I was kind of the finance person with a bunch of mad scientists who didn’t know a thing about building a budget or what not. It was a really great experience learning how to work with different personalities, because you go from a company like McNeil when you’re working with really world class marketers who are great business people.
Most of them are MBA’s from Ivy League schools and I was the finance partner, if you will, so I was the person telling them, ‘No, don’t spend on this. Spend on that,’ or, ‘How do we measure that?’ You’re looking back in the early 2000’s where some of those metrics we have today in marketing were not in place, so how do you measure success of a campaign?
It’s funny because now I’m on the other end, often times talking about how I need metrics, or I say, ‘Marketing is not only data. There’s quite a bit of art to it.’ I used to be that person on the other end telling them, ‘No, it has to have an ROI. You have to stay in budget.’
Bill: Now you tell your finance person to, ‘Shut up and let me do it. This is magic that we’re making here.’ Perfect.
Agata: Yes, but it really gave me a wonderful exposure to marketing and the inner-workings, and how to make marketing campaigns successful when it comes to the ROI and getting that investment back and how do you measure that. Then going over to Centicore, learning how to work with someone who was MD, PhD’s, mad scientists in the lab. You talk about budget and they look at you like you have three heads growing out of your neck.
Fabulous experiences again, they would change, they would bring us together for sessions and they would bring Ivy League professors to teach us negotiations and marketing and finance. I graduated from that program, ended up in, of all places, financial planning and allowance. It’s like this is the last place a person with my personality should probably end up. I just had way too much personality for those guys. I’m like the one person on the team that doesn’t have a CPA.
Bill: Right, you get to talk to the clients. Everyone else sit and crunch the numbers.
Agata: This is, FPNA at J&J, it’s a hardcore finance function so you’re doing profit and loss statements, you’re doing cash flows, you’re making some really complex journal entries as well. I was not an accounting major and my heart was not really in it, but if you perform well no one is going to push you out of the company.
This is a fabulous company to be part of so as far as poking around, looking at other areas of the business, I went to my CFO and the CFO says, ‘Agata, you’ve been here for a few years. What do you want to do, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘Listen,’ his name was Don. I said, ‘Listen Don. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up but I don’t want to be you.’
Bill: I’m sure he took that well.
Agata: To this day, this is a person who is actually a reference for me quite often, so we had a fabulous relationship. He started laughing and he’s like, ‘That’s really nice of you to say. What else would you like to do? Let’s see if there are opportunities internally and if there’s something external you want to take a look at you should.’
We started looking internally, I started looking also externally, and an opportunity came up. It was kind of odd. It was a company that I’d never heard of. The company was called Korn Ferry. It’s a preeminent global advisory firm when it comes to senior talent. It’s executive search, it’s also talent management solutions. It’s leadership development, all those things.
An opportunity came up with this company in their healthcare practice. They knew I had this experience from J&J, they knew I understood enough to be their interest about the different types of businesses within pharma and healthcare services, so they took me under their umbrella in this healthcare practice and I got to work with a superstar of a business developer.
This guy was just a pleasure to watch. When you talk about doing business development as an art. He had it down. It was just an unbelievable thing, to see how someone can develop relationships, maintain them, how you can ask questions and be consultative. I made this 360 degree switch from spending my entire days in Excel spreadsheets, in general ledgers, working on pivot tables, doing analysis to spending 100% of my day talking to people about people.
Bill: It’s a switch.
Agata: Quite a switch. I remember when I told people at J&J that I was going to leave to do this, honestly people had very interesting reactions to that. They said, ‘You are completely out of your mind. People who get into the J&J and graduate from this program, you should not leave. This is a mistake. You’re going to regret it. This is the best company to work for. This is not good. This doesn’t make any sense for your career,’ but I really liked the guys I interviewed with and I felt there was a connection and we’re going to work well together. I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to take a chance on that,’ and they were taking a big chance on me as well.
Bill: Yeah, you were A-typical in terms of background.
Agata: Absolutely, but I was able to really take off and I took it as an opportunity to really hone in on my business development skills, negotiation, on storytelling. Often times what you have to do in a business is you have to be able to go out and spend four or five hours with a senior leadership team of an organization or a board of directors and they tell you a story of what they need in terms of a talent. You need to then kind of package it, make it exciting, take it out to the market and sell it to people and find someone who is super successful today and convince them that they actually need to drop everything they are doing today.
Bill: Throw it all away!
Agata: Throw it all away, and come work for this organization because this is the story I am going to tell you. This was a lot of fun because you’re 20 something and you get to work with CEO’s and boards of directors and you get to ask them questions.
Bill: Travel around. It’s glamourous.
Agata: Travel around, and wine and dine, and all kinds of things. You’re working with these superstars of partners within the firm who are just amazing builders and just amazing at what they do and they’ve been doing it for many years. I spent there about five or six years at Korn Ferry. During that time I also decided I was going to do my MBA, so I was working full-time and I was getting my Executive MBA full-time at the same time.
Bill: That’s a lot.
Agata: It was a lot. It was a pretty tough couple of years but fabulous from the perspective of making new friendships. I think there’s a few friends I lost along the way because my social life outside of school and work did not exist whatsoever.
Bill: Right, not a lot of happy hours or anything.
Agata: No, there’s no happy hours. You’re going home and you’re working, and then the weekends I was never home because the weekends you were obligated to actually stay on campus. Imagine this, you’re working and you’re traveling, because my job involved a lot of travel. You’re traveling a lot for work and then come the weekend, no you don’t get to go home. You go to school and you stay overnight at school.
Bill: In the dorms! Right.
Agata: Yeah, it was the executive program so it was kind of fun actually. They feed you well. It’s very nice. A phenomenal program, and as I was going through the program my boss was given additional responsibilities. He was a big biller so he was making all kinds of money and he was given this responsibility to grow this international healthcare service business but honestly there was not enough hours in the day for him to do that.
He said, ‘Agata, I have this thing. Can you just take on this and run with it?’ I really jumped at the opportunity and it was a very successful project. We were able to develop a business case for expansion of healthcare services internationally, pulling partners from all around the world, grow that business and really put it on a very successful trajectory. In the course of working on that I ended up being promoted to Principle, which is like a junior partner in the firm, which I was pretty happy with myself because I was one of the youngest junior partners in the firm at the time, so pretty happy with that.
I was also finishing up my MBA and I think I’m not unique in that sense that when you’re finishing an MBA or a graduate program and you had worked before you’re kind of looking for something new, like what else should I go …
Bill: It’s a switch, typically a path to a switch.
Agata: It is. There was some kind of switch in the trajectory, and I also had this memory of me traveling with my new boss at the beginning when I joined Korn Ferry. We’re traveling for a client meeting and we had a drink and he tells me how he wishes he didn’t start in this business because he makes so much money now that it’s very difficult for him to make a switch to go back to doing what he loves.
Bill: It is a first world problem by the way, but yes, fair enough.
Agata: It is very much. I’m like this is a good problem to have, so I asked him questions. ‘What do you mean by that?’ He’s like, ‘Well now you have this mortgage, you have this house at the shore. You have all these cars, you have kids in private schools. My happiest professional days were when I was a VP of sales for this organization,’ he shared with me.
When I was finishing the MBA and I was thinking about my trajectory, like do I stay at Korn Ferry? Now I have a great launch pad, I was promoted, everyone loves me. I can take on this international thing now and really blow it out, or do I move on into something else? I remember that conversation because literally this was a conversation I had with a guy in the first week I joined the firm.
It really resonated with me that here is someone who you really would aspire to be and this is the story they’re telling you. I’m like, okay, if there was a time in your life to make a change, if you want to try something, this is the time I should do it.
Randomly I saw an opportunity posted at David’s Bridal. No experience whatsoever in fashion, no experience whatsoever in retail, absolutely zero. I submitted my resume. I actually didn’t expect to even get a call back, and I get a call back. We spend about five or seven minutes with this woman on the phone. It really felt like speed dating at that point. She just powered through a couple of questions and she was done with me even though we had half an hour scheduled. She was just like, ‘I want you to come in.’
I met with her. Our one-hour interview turned out to be a four hour interview, somewhere midway I do recall her assistant knocked on the door to check if she was still alive or if I was some random person off the street there dead, that something bad in the office and that’s why we’re not getting out.
Bill: Came in, murdered her. Right, yeah.
Agata: We really hit it off. This is a woman who had a tremendous amount of experience in partnerships. She had a tremendous amount of experience in retail. She came out of the music industry, some agencies, and when you talk partnerships she knew it all. She took me in. Within a week I was there.
Soon after joining I realized that, okay, not only am I going to be doing this thing that’s new to me but also, they gave me to sell and pitch these new partnerships that no one before was ever successful in. You have something that call you endemic categories and non-endemic. If you’re coming in to sell something you want to sell something that makes sense. Here was a situation where I was given this opportunity to grow something that no one was successful doing before. Really, when you think about the bridal space …
Bill: You can’t screw it up.
Agata: You can’t screw it up. It wasn’t done before, but you can do nothing. Nothing might happen, and that’s not good when you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to create new partnerships, bring new partners. When you think about the wedding category, I had to think from flowers, to jewelry, travel, those are some key endemic categories.
When you think about non-endemic categories, some of the partnerships I brought in were with NationWide, Home Depot. How do you create a story and how do you create a connection between Home Depot and a bridal space? It took a lot of really thinking and storytelling and research as well, to validate some of the points, statements I was making, to create a story and be able to package it and sell it to the senior marketing teams at those organizations.
That position at David’s Bridal was really a launch pad for me and I learned so much over time. I took over a local sales team and then a few years in, when my boss left, I took over the entire department, so all of the partnerships when it comes to sales but also the client services, the analytics teams. A really great opportunity for me to learn from some of the best and really continue to grow the business for David’s Bridal.
I remember the CEO, of David’s Bridal, on his last stay we had this farewell lunch with him and I was working on that Home Depot deal and I was working so hard. He goes to me, ‘If you close this deal it’s going to be the end of the world. This is an impossible deal.’ It was his last day. ‘This is an impossible deal to close, just so you know.’ 48 hours later we did close it, he wasn’t there to celebrate, but I said, ‘No Bob, I will close it. You’ll see.’
When I was at David’s Bridal I took over the department and on LinkedIn I followed different companies in the areas, opinion leaders, stock leaders, companies that may be of interest to me at some point, I want to see what they are up to. This thing at Destination Maternity pops up, that there is a VP of Partnerships position open. I knew that Destination Maternity did a similar thing that David’s Bridal did, which is those revenue generating and other types of partnerships. Out of curiosity I reached out to them.
They called me right away and they brought me in, but it was more about me learning about what are they doing. I really was going to the interview trying to figure out is there something they are doing that we are not doing. I come in and I really hit it off with the executive team. They bring the CEO to the meeting, they bring the CFO, and everyone. By the time I make it home from the meeting I have an offer. This is a 60 minute drive we’re talking about, so I’m like, ‘Wow, they really want me,’ which is a great feeling to have.
Bill: Sure, right. That was your first career switch that actually made sense perhaps.
Agata: It is, but then I made it in to not make full sense actually, because I think the only way to truly grow is to do something you haven’t done before. My condition on joining sort of was, ‘Okay, I’ll come in and I’ll do the marketing partnerships but I also want additional responsibilities,’ so I was given the celebrity and licensing partnerships. We have a line with Jessica Simpson, we have other celebrity partnerships as well.
I was given all the sports licensing partnerships. I was given international business development and all of our franchise partnerships, and all of our lease partnerships. Today we have more than 150 stores internationally. We have operations in Mexico, and Israel, and middle east, in South Korea, we have in the UK.
Agata: Poland no.
Bill: Uh oh.
Agata: I’m trying to put it on the map. I’m working on that.
Bill: Krakow needs a bunch of these.
Agata: Have you been to Krakow?
Bill: I have not but I know of it.
Agata: It’s a beautiful city.
Bill: I’ve heard it’s beautiful. I’d love to go.
Agata: We have a huge relationship also with Macy’s. It’s our biggest lease partner, so imagine an idea of renting a space, a shop someplace else. So that’s another relationship that’s really big that I manage from this strategic point of view. While I have this half of a background of things I did, I grabbed and held onto additional ones that I thought, ‘I think I can transfer the skills that I developed so far at David’s Bridal and my prior positions into this opportunity.’
I took the position and it was an interesting one because I came in and I essentially had to rebuild 90% of the team. I find myself today to be in a really good spot, having a fabulous team and people working so well together. Literally I have people on the team come up to me and say, ‘I’m just happy to come to work.’
Bill: That’s great.
Agata: It’s a great feeling to have, and we even recently had some additions that we stole from your ex-employees.
Bill: We’re still irritated by this, although there was something in between so that’s fine. How long have you been …
Agata: For one year.
Bill: For about a year. That’s great. Thank you for the description, what a ride and much more to come. One of the things that’s interesting, parallel I think with terms of David’s and Destination Maternity, you’re dealing with a consumer that has a certain window of time where they’re engaged in the category.
I know you view this from a partnership but also a brand perspective. What are unique challenges of working to market brands or build partnerships where you really have a consumer that is deeply engaged but for a fixed period of time. Both of these things, whether it’s weddings or the process of pregnancy are very emotional. They’re high emotion. When you look at the world through that sort of lens of these limited time windows but deeply felt beliefs, what are the challenges associated with those that might be unique?
Agata: It’s a great point and it’s very comparable between bridal and pregnancy space actually. It’s a great point. Both of those are major life stage events if you think about it. Things like brand affinity is changing, brand loyalties are changing, it’s what enables the partnership side to really exist actually because it is a life stage event. On the other end, when you look at the marketing to those types of customers, it is a very sensitive moment in their life, whether it be bridal or being pregnant.
Bill: Both of those moments in my household, by the way, I couldn’t do anything right.
Agata: There you go.
Bill: Probably partially true but partially the emotion of the periods of time.
Agata: When you’re planning a wedding you’re so stressed out, there’s all those things happening, all of this planning, everyone has their needs and wants. There’s all of those loose ends you have to tie so you’re very sensitive because of that, because it’s so much on your mind.
Actually we search that suggested that an engaged woman spends about 10 to 12 hours a week planning her wedding at work. As you can imagine, on our team, it’s a highly female skewed group. There was a group that was in that age range, to be engaged, recently engaged, having babies. I remember we have to account for one FTE of someone who is going to get engaged and is going to be planning. When you are in a bridal company and you’re walking past someone if they are on a bridal website maybe they’re doing work research or maybe not.
Bill: Sure, right.
Agata: Very interesting from that perspective how much pressure is placed on a young person and they really never had to plan an event like that in their life. To your point earlier Bill, having this limited window, it was always important at David’s and it is also important here, to attract the customer as early as you can.
Bill: Yeah, you have to engage. There’s not much time to waste.
Agata: There’s not much time, there is only so big of a window of opportunity to capture her. In bridal, you also have the very high likelihood that the first place that she’s going to go to look at the dress, she will find the one she wants.
Bill: Yeah, right.
Agata: It’s very easy. I forget the exact statistics but I think it was close to 60% of people picked their favorite dress on the first visit, so if you’re not the first shop that she’s visiting …
Bill: You’ve got to be there.
Agata: You’ve got to be there. Number one, the sensitive time when you’re stressed, you’re planning, then on the maternity side you’re stressed and you’re sensitive because your body has changed in a way that you never experienced perhaps.
We as a brand over index heavily on first time mothers, so it is the first time she’s experiencing this in her life. In both situations, the sale is much more consultative. This is not someone coming in and saying, ‘I’m just going to get this, this, and this.’ People are actually getting caught into the selection process, our consultants, and we call them consultants, our sales associates serve in a very consultative way.
There is a very high level of trust, and those things are similar between bridal and maternity. The level of trust that you have to develop with the client is really deep, so you have a short period of time, you have to capture their attention, they are sensitive, they are emotional.
With bridal you are also competing for the wallet. She’s going to have to plan this party, she is going to have to spend money on the honeymoon and how many guests she is inviting. This is a dress she is going to wear once. This is the dress of her lifetime, hopefully, but it is a one-time kind of wear.
Bill: A lot of different voices in that process too, to make a check.
Agata: Absolutely, you have the mother of the bride, you have all kinds of people with opinions standing around. Then when you look at the maternity side we compete very much with her mindset. It’s this race, she’s trying to see how long can she survive without having to get maternity clothes.
Neither one of those brands is a brand that can grow the pie for the market. You’re dealing with a constrained amount. The market is only so big – in the wedding space you have two million weddings a year; in the maternity space you have four million babies born a year. That’s been pretty constant.
While it is a beautiful thing for a business because it makes your business cycle quite predictable, the work is on you to do a good job, but the size of the market is quite predictable. The back end of that, you can’t grow the pie.
Think about a Fitbit, that market didn’t exist. The market for wearable fitness technology did not exist. Someone came in and created it and suddenly it’s huge, but that happened in the last few years. Here, you cannot come in and grow the pie. You really have to figure out how you’re going to capture what’s already there. The importance of getting them early, getting their attention, and working through some of those emotional things that exist and knowing how to work with this client.
A lot of times some of the most successful people when it comes to our sales associates are people who have spent a tremendous amount of time with our company and they know how to talk to the client. I think those are the key things. The sensitivity of the life stage that is happening, the constraint demand, and getting them early, because with pregnancy, if we wait until she’s in her third trimester we’ve lost this entire length of her journey.
Also educating. It’s a lot of education for those brands. In maternity, our number one educational goal now is how do you show her that these clothes are not clothes that are one and done. You can actually wear many of the maternity clothes after you have your baby. You don’t have to dispose of them. They are absolutely wonderful fashion that you can wear later, so really showing her that.
Then the last one would be the guilt factor. The one who is pregnant, she feels guilty perhaps spending on herself because she has this baby coming. Right there and then you’re competing for your fashion versus the money for her baby. In the wedding, you’re competing the money for the dress versus the money for having a better type of alcohol for your guests or a better venue. There’s always these competing forces that are in place.
Bill: It must be fascinating to, on the data side, watch the reactions of people across that life cycle, limited though it may be. When it comes to the partnership side that you’re working on day in and day out with your team, as noted there is likely a strong desire to do as many as you can, to help get them early and make sure that they’re feeling and touching the brand in different parts of life.
Then again, with retail and with consumer facing concepts, there’s the notion of the brand fit. How do you and the team balance this desire for maximum amplification of the message, just getting the name out to begin to engage with defining what is or isn’t the right fit for the company and its brands?
Agata: I think it’s a very important question. The brand fit is very important. It really comes first. If the brand is not a good fit, if it’s not relevant, at the end of the day the campaign is not going to be successful because the customer will not engage.
If we want to realize whether it be a broader reach or some kind of financial benefit from a partnership, because we have all kinds of different partnerships, it will not be a success if there is not a good brand fit. Sometimes it may be obvious that there is a brand fit and sometimes you have to do a little bit of research and actually validate some of the statements.
You also have to be careful because at the end of the day the number one priority for us is our own brand. There is always this halo effect, what is it going to do to us when we associate ourselves with someone? Is that the right message?
We do say no to certain types of partnerships quite often. It’s whether someone doesn’t have a great reputation or we definitely research the companies. Even once we go into a partnership we constantly monitor what’s happening in the news, what’s happening on social media with our partners, to be able to spot something that might be alarming, because we are associating ourselves through those partnerships with brands.
I think number one is a good brand fit because you’re going to realize the engagement you’re hoping for and then you’re going to have a repeat business or a repeat partnership. At the end of the day I do not want to have to create new partnerships every few months. The best partnerships are the ones you have going on for years and years for many years and you’ve optimized them over the years and they work wonderfully and you just continue to add on and develop them deeper.
You don’t want to have to invent it every single year or every few months. It’s a lot of work to launch a new partnership, it’s a lot of work to get it going, to get it right, it doesn’t happen right away so just because you’re launching something doesn’t mean it’s going to work wonderfully within 30 days.
In my experience it takes about three to six months to actually get it to where you want it. That’s why I’m a strong believer in longer term partnerships actually. It really gives everyone an opportunity to learn from one another. You have two marketing teams working together as well so you have two different cultures.
You have a company the size of, I don’t know, Home Depot as an example, which is a huge company. Then you have a smaller group, and you’re balancing always the egos or really the work ethic or the workload I should say. Not even work ethic, the workload, when you have a team that manages five projects versus a team that manages 100.
To us this might be the most important partnerships we’ve ever done. To them this might be the least important partnership in place. Getting a little bit of perspective and putting ourselves in our partner’s shoes is also very important.
The culture of the partner is important, the brand, whether your brand is positioned, is it aspirational, is it going to harm us in any way, is there any controversy around that brand? As I mentioned before, we have a very high trust level with our customers, close to 90% of them say they trust us as a brand and our recommendations. We have a ridiculous net promoter score. Our net promoter score was 80.
Bill: Wow, that is ridiculous.
Agata: Amazon is 64. Zappos is 60. It’s off the charts, so we need to really be guarding it and making sure this does not get effected in a negative way, so we definitely pay attention to that and we definitely have some healthy discussions and conversations.
I remember when I was at David’s Bridal, I always had this strong belief that we should do a partnership with someone in the space of the honeymoon, the KY jelly and all of that. There was a ton of people that said, ‘No absolutely not.’ I used to come in and say, ‘Listen but we do honeymoons. We do all this. It’s such a great fit. Of course it’s happening. We need to do a partnership with those brands. They have a lot of great things going on, they have fabulous budget, they have fabulous marketing people. We need to be working with them.’ I had all these friends at J&J who also wanted to create a partnership. KY is actually their brand, I think they just spun it off recently. But we really needed to be working with them, it was such a good fit.
It just didn’t go over too well. I was given another couple of times. Then I tried to sneak it in another way so I created a honeymoon campaign that had all these things. I remember my CMO coming to me with the printout of this marketing campaign I created and he’s like, ‘Really Agata, I see you didn’t give up on that.’
Bill: Deep in the copy line.
Agata: Yeah, ‘it’s right there I see it. It’s not a stand-alone but you kind of buried it in there.’ You definitely will have disagreements on what is a good brand fit or what is not, and really understanding what your brand stands for is important. It’s definitely always a healthy balance of conversations of what is or is not a good fit.
Bill: Right, is there an extra level of scrutiny and analysis when it comes to celebrities who are people, when you look at brands, whether it’s spokespeople or co-branded product lines? Obviously what happens with celebrities in terms of things they say, things they do. You mentioned that’s part of your portfolio. Companies may be a little bit more stable, but talk a little bit, if you would, about the celebrity side of partnerships and some of the pitfalls that may be associated with that.
Agata: It’s definitely a consideration and you have to understand that at any time those kind of partnerships or ambassadorships happen, there’s always a risk. We’ve been very fortunate to have fabulous partners in that space but that’s why I think we are super cautious in general when it comes to that space because it’s a little bit outside of your control at that point.
We’ve had some really stable and long-term relationships, so for us, we’re not very voyeuristic in that space and not super aggressive. We’re kind of happy with what we have now. We recently had a Jamie King partnership that went really well but we are not super active in that space. We have the Jessica Simpson partnership. That’s a fabulous one for us. She designed an entire line for us and it performs well and her name has been so widely recognized and associated with a certain lifestyle and certain aesthetic. Those do very well for us.
Bill: She’s trustworthy, she’s not going to go do something that you don’t want her … well who knows, I never put it past anybody but yeah, that’s funny.
Agata: Yeah. There’s always definitely that risk because all of those partnerships are. You’re putting a little bit of yourself and your brand out there.
Bill: Sure, absolutely. We’ve kept you beyond what we promised but on this amazing journey some of the decisions you’ve made and some of the situations you’ve found yourself in, based upon looking around and interests and the switches along the way, are there any words of wisdom that have become important personal principles to you?
I’m sure a portion of our listener base are those who are starting out or are early on. Anything to share for those who’ve been inspired by what they’ve heard from you about your own path?
Agata: Having a good attitude and being a curious person are the top two qualities I look for in people and I always appreciate. Those are pretty easy to identify when you are talking to people. In general, we all want to work with people who are in a good mood, people who are happy.
Bill: No doubt. Steve here is a big problem (sarcastic). He’s very moody, and difficult.
Agata: He’s a Debbie Downer?
Bill: Yeah, just not fun to work with this guy day in and day out. Steve’s our executive producer by the way, but go ahead.
Agata: That’s important. You can be a good student, you can have great grades, you can work really hard. Now the hot word is grit. It’s all about grit, like everywhere you go it’s all about the grit. You can have all of those things but if you’re not a person who comes in every day to work and is happy and makes other people want to spend time with you and be around you, I think that’s really important.
That’s something that people miss quite often. They think, ‘I’m going to do hard work. I’m going to put 100% into this venture, into this position,’ but they forget to be happy in it. When you’re happy and when you have a good attitude, in general your outcomes will be much more positive, and the interactions with others.
For me, attitude is the number one thing I look for in people. It actually trumps experience quite often because I do believe you can teach people certain things. You cannot teach a person good attitude. That is something someone either has and cultivates on a daily basis or they don’t.
Another thing that I don’t hear people talk about quite often and I think that’s something we all can learn and practice is learning agility. That’s a phrase that I came across at Korn Ferry actually. Korn Ferry talked quite a bit about that. When we did a lot of research on the top performers, top CEO’s, etc. across the country, across the world, the number one thing they had in common was learning agility.
If you had learning agility you were twice as likely to get promoted and move up faster than the rest of the people. Really, about 12% to 15% of people of professional workforce actually has that. Now learning agility is very difficult to test for in general. It’s something you observe.
How do you deal with failure? Are you able to be in a first time situation and maybe you don’t deliver 100% but you actually deliver results in the first time situation that you are finding yourself. What do you do with failure when you have one? Do you use it as a constructive, learning, teachable experience or does it bring you down? Do you get up and move on? Are you a quick study? Do you throw yourself in situations that you don’t have a guarantee you will be successful in?
Those are very easy. You have projects, you’re like, ‘I’m just going to do a great job on that,’ yeah, then that’s very easy to jump in, but if you see something that there is a potential for you to fail in it but you still go ahead and you succeed and maybe you don’t deliver 100% but I am a huge believer in the Pareto Principle, 80-20. If you deliver somewhere there and if you learn from that and you go to the next situation and you apply it, that’s the essence of learning agility.
There’s actually a really good Harvard Business Review article about learning agility if you Google it. It will come up and they talk about how to cultivate it in yourself, how to coach it in others. I truthfully believe that learning agility is the number one predictor of someone’s success and something that you just don’t hear people talk about.
Like I said, grit is the thing now. You hear people talk about positive attitude and I do believe in that as well, but learning agility and knowing how to cultivate it in yourself and others is also very important. Failure is okay. One of my professors at the grad school, he was a professor of systems, thinking, and organizational design. It’s like a combination of psychology, anthropology, and engineering.
Bill: That’s fascinating.
Agata: Yeah, if you look it up, systems thinking. It’s amazing. He always said in his Persian accent that success is the devil. It took me awhile to get what he meant by that. I’m like, ‘No, I want to be successful. It’s not the devil. What are you talking about?’
When you’re going through life and all you have is success you haven’t learned much. It’s the people who had to get through obstacles, who had to overcome some failures and learn from those, those are the people that will, at the end, be most successful.
When you are in a position of success in a situation as a company, as a brand, or whatnot, when you’re doing really well you should be a little paranoid and you should be looking around because it’s not a very long term, sustainable state. I’m understanding that while you may enjoy the status-quo of success things are constantly changing and what are you doing about that?
Bill: Sure, one thing from your bio that made an impression on me, you early in the training program and on the backend of it at J&J, you were in a function that was not of great interest to you, but you made the point about how if you were successful within it, that would enable you to get taken out of it and keep relationships intact and to have advocates. A lot is written about different generations and their approach to things. Is there anything in that experience that has been central to your own success, that maybe we don’t see as much or we want to encourage in younger people today?
It seems like a lot of folks expect that first job to be the dream job, and everything is perfect, or expect to be promoted or shifted within an unreasonably short period of time. As you work with folks of different ages how does that experience compute with what you’re seeing out there?
Agata: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because I, to this day, am so grateful for that experience in finance and I use that skillset to this day. I actually strongly believe that people should know how to be financially savvy and understand how to read financial statements. Just to extrapolate in a more general sense, I think being okay with the fact that when you’re 19 or 20 years old you may make the wrong decision and you will not know what it is you want to be when you grow up. It’s okay.
People are 50, 40, and they still do not know what they want to be when they grow up. That’s okay. As long as you continue to learn I think that’s fine. For me, making transitions that on paper may not make a lot of sense, and taking risks early on. I do strongly believe early on in your career you should move around quite a bit and learn a lot of new things, a lot of different things, because then at the end it’s all going to come together nicely and you’re going to be able to pull from a very extensive toolkit.
For some people, it’s the right path to be an expert in one area and go really deep. If that’s the kind of person you are and you recognize that in yourself, that’s okay. I do believe in changing at the beginning of your career quite a bit to figure out where it is that you fit best and finding the job that actually makes you happy so that Sunday at 5:00 pm, 6:00 pm, you’re not sick to your stomach about Monday morning starting but you’re actually looking forward to it and you’re happy. That’s when you know you have the right job, if you’re actually happy on Sunday at 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm …
Bill: Or you have small kids and you cannot wait to go back to work.
Agata: That’s another one.
Bill: No offense to my family. They’re not listening.
Agata: It’s okay to make mistakes and take it as an opportunity to learn. Be a little reflective, take a minute to think about why it didn’t work out, what will you do differently next time, and just don’t beat yourself up.
Listen, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made deals that didn’t work out. I’ve come up with ideas that didn’t take off. It happens and it’s just how you deal with it, what did you learn from it, and move on and forget. I literally, if I had to count how many times people say no to me on a daily basis it’s just a ridiculous amount of time. What I hear when they say no, it’s not, ‘No, never,’ it’s just, ‘Not now.’ Okay, well I look forward to talking to you again.
When you hear no just take it as, ‘not now,’ not, ‘No.’ In general try to be an optimist because when it all boils down people who are optimistic and happy are not because of the jobs they have but because of the type of person they have become.
I strongly believe that happiness starts with us personally and if there is something in your job that is not making you happy, if your boss is not making you happy, I also believe strongly in having the right boss. I think you can have a fabulous job and a boss that’s just not a good fit for you, I believe in moving on.
There’s absolutely nothing worse than sticking to a job that is not making you happy or is making you miserable every day. I will put a little caveat on it. There is no perfect job in the world that you will be happy 100% of times, but if you are happy 80% of the time, that’s where you’re good.
Bill: Sure. Last question I promise, you’ve been so great. We’ve been grateful to get this time and you’ve been generous with it. As someone who came to the US at 21, you said, what perspective does that give you or any reflections on maybe what you see in American culture or in others of your generation but were here the whole time and what you observe about the different ways in which we behave or have been taught to behave? Any reflections of someone who came from Poland in your early twenties?
Agata: It’s interesting. Someone recently asked me that question. I see a lot of differences number one, but it also gives me a great perspective. I don’t take things for granted, that’s number one. I appreciate how optimistic Americans actually are in general and when you look at people they are much more solutions-oriented here. It’s a very tolerant culture.
The biggest difference for me, and I observed it on myself and others when I was in the university, and even later on in my early career, was the authority. In Europe, or at least back in the day when I was there and I was studying, there was a very different way you would challenge your bosses, your professors, versus here. It’s much more open here.
I came to the university and I saw students challenging the professor and I was honestly terrified because it was completely unacceptable back home. We couldn’t do it. You would not question the professor or complain about something. You went back and you did what they told you.
I also recognized how it really makes people in the US very innovative. It’s something that at first you’re like, ‘These people, there’s no authority. There’s no respect. We’ve lost all the respect.’ No, this is actually what breeds creativity and innovation and I think that that should be celebrated.
That was a little bit of a shock for me personally coming to this country. I had to make a switch. Then the fact that back home, when you stand for a picture no one smiles. That doesn’t mean this family is not happy. It’s just no one smiles. If you smile they’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?’ You come here and everyone smiles in pictures and you ask people how are you doing today and, ‘Oh it’s great,’ and you ask people back home, ‘Oh it’s terrible, my back hurts and I missed my train and it’s probably going to rain today.’ You hear this whole litany.
Having this mental switch and appreciating that different cultures are different, for me was a huge learning experience. That’s really what made me more agile as a person to adapt to new environments.
Think about something as basic as I used to be a funny person. I used to be a really funny person in my first language. I’m 21 years old, I come in here, and I’m used to people cracking up when I make a joke, and no one is laughing. When I try people get offended, because European humor is so much more sarcastic, so it takes me years to get back to this level of comfort of being actually comfortable joking with people.
It’s a dramatic experience if you’re used to being a fun and social person and suddenly people either don’t laugh or they’re deeply offended by what you said. There’s a lot of learning and being open. I definitely had quite a few failures on that front and I think it just makes you more resilient. You take failure a little easier when you go through that.
Bill: Awesome, well great place to end it. Thank you so much for your time and insight. Agata Clevenger of Destination Maternity was our guest. Thank you so much.
Agata: Thank you.
Bill: What a stud, so much fun to talk to her. All that’s happening at Destination Maternity and all the energy and joy that she brings to what she does.
Three ways to help us, as always at Real-World Branding, we will go fast. One is to subscribe. You won’t miss a week if you click, ‘subscribe,’ in the app store of your choice. Two, if we’ve earned it, a rating would be wonderful in helping us express the value of what we’re doing to those who may not have run across what we’re doing as of yet. Lastly, we greatly appreciate the dialogue on Twitter about future guest ideas, future topics, Q&A.
Maybe we’ll do all of one episode that’s just Q&A, as the questions continue to come in we’re really grateful for the dialogue. We’re about a year into this, as you know, those who have listened for a while, and certainly still learning about how to make this the right mix of hopefully entertainment and inspiration when it comes to business and brand building. On that uplifting note and in that spirit, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post The Mother of All Brands: Agata Clevenger, Destination Maternity appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this week’s episode, Bill details the role of target market feedback in developing creative brand elements, with a focus on when and how to test creative designs with consumers. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
In this episode, we examine the role of licensing and consumer products in brand growth. Donna Goldsmith, SVP of Consumer Products, Partnerships and International Event Licensing at Tough Mudder, reviews lessons learned across brands including the NBA and WWE. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Donna Goldsmith: I think it’s just what your brand stands for. It makes all the difference.
Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. A treat for you today, as Executive Producer, Steve and I, sojourned up to Brooklyn and sat down with Donna Goldsmith, the Senior Vice President of Consumer Products and Partnership Marketing at Tough Mudder in their super-cool Brooklyn offices. Donna is a legend in licensing and consumer products, particularly for experiential and sort of sports-driven concepts.
As she’ll tell you, she did a decade at the NBA during a time of explosive growth, then did a decade or slightly more at World Wrestling Entertainment, also during a growth period, particularly on the side of the business that she was managing. Then, through some of her consulting work, arrived at Tough Mudder, not knowing really what to find, and she’ll tell you about what she has found, which is an amazing, only 6 years old, but a lifestyle, high energy, connected brand concept that she will no doubt lead to incredible heights, above, if possible, those they’ve already reached in their first 6 years of growth. Enjoy Donna Goldsmith of Tough Mudder.
We are here in the bad-ass Brooklyn headquarters of Tough Mudder with Donna Goldsmith, who’s the SVP of Consumer Products and Partnership Marketing here, a great get for the Real-World Branding podcast, as you all will hear. Thank you for joining us.
Donna Goldsmith: Thanks for having me today.
Bill: It could not be more of a pleasure for us. Your background across different brands and entertainment properties, athletic properties everybody would know, could you take us just a little bit through it, a quick twirl through some of the stops along the way, and we’ll start there?
Donna: Sure, sure. That’d be great. You know, it’s funny. I’ve been working for a very long time, and now as you know I’m working for Tough Mudder, the obstacle challenge and personal accomplishment brand, and we’re innovative, and we can talk about all those things in a second. How I got here was right out of college I had a Liberal Arts degree from a state university in New York, and it wasn’t in accounting, it wasn’t in the new field at the time of computer sciences, and thought, ‘God, I’ve got to get my first job.’
I could type like a speed demon, and as a result, back then there was no keyboarding classes, there were no computers. Then I got my first job at Revlon in Cosmetic Marketing for the cosmetic giant, and I got my job as an assistant, but quickly moved through the ranks there, as I was willing to do almost anything to start. Left there after 5 years as an Assistant Brand Manager, so I was on the marketing path at that point, and was pulled away from someone who was in cosmetics and had moved to the company Swatch Watch, who was in, as you know, the fashion watch business, and worked there on everything that wasn’t watches. You say, ‘What else could you have worked on there?’
They had new business development in something they called the Swatch Telephone, which was brand new. I actually did sales. I had never done sales before, and went out to Macy’s West on the west coast, sold here. Swatch Telephone, did consumer products for them that weren’t watches, such as gift bags. Remember you would go to the counter and you’d buy something for X dollars, you’d get something. I sourced out bags for them and chachkies and novelties in the Far East, which was again, a terrific experience, something I had never done before.
I was willing to do almost anything. From there, stayed about 2 1/2 years, enjoyed it very much, it was very much an autonomous environment. My bosses were based in Switzerland, so it was very hands-off, but I was ready to get into something a little bit different where I could learn more on a day-to-day basis from people who were on the ground with me and could mentor and teach me. As a result, I applied for a job I saw in the New York Times, which said, ‘Major League sports seeking packaged goods marketer.’
Bill: Yeah, back then there were newspapers and they had jobs in them. It was amazing.
Donna: Yes, there were newspapers and people read them, and they had newsprint on their hands.
Bill: Carried them with them, and right. It was pretty cool.
Donna: That’s a really good point because I didn’t think of that as I was saying that. Applied for this job, and apparently when I did get a call, and I didn’t know who I was applying for. I was not a sports fan, but it seemed interesting. I got a call soon thereafter from the National Basketball Association, from a gentleman by the name of Bill Jemas, who is still a friend of mine, works for 2K Sports, and said, ‘We’d really like to meet you. We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of resumes, but yours is different. Most of the people said, ‘Yo, I know sports. Hire me,’ and you had Revlon and you had Swatch Watch and we thought your background was interesting.’
Went into the NBA wide-eyed, with a cheat sheet in one pocket from my dad, a cheat sheet in the other pocket from my boyfriend at the time, telling me, ‘Okay, the Pistons are in … There’s a championship at the end of the season, Donna, and the Pistons are in it,’ and giving me all this information, because I knew nothing about sports. Walked into these gorgeous offices at the NBA, with pictures of Magic and Michael, and Larry Bird, and a bunch of people. I didn’t know who they were, and was interviewed by this gentleman who was starting a new business development department, and started off the interview by showing me a poster with hundreds of players on it, and said, ‘Do you know who this is?’ Points, and of course I didn’t. ‘Do you know who this is?’ Must have gone 5 deep before I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Michael Jordan. Duh.’
Of course I knew who Michael Jordan was, and ultimately he said, ‘Look, I’m kidding you a little bit. We’re not hiring you for your sports knowledge. We’re hiring you because you have a good background and I’m offering you this job,’ after really a relatively short interview, had me meet with a few other people. I took the job, and kicked off with this gentleman, Bill Jemas, who was an attorney by profession, but was in the marketing, licensing, consumer goods area. Started off their trading card business, and the NBA had never had really a trading card business in consecutive years. Somebody had come in and gone out, but we started a business, it grew exponentially. It was the time when people were saying, ‘I’m going to put these trading cards in my garage, and I’m going to send my son to college.’
Bill: Yeah, sure. Was this like Topps, Fleer, Donruss? Those were the ones.
Donna: You’ve got it. You’ve got it. We had licensed the first cards with Fleer, who at the time …
Bill: Three at a time? Were those the packs that had 3?
Donna: They had anywhere from 3 to 5. They had collectible pieces of the uniforms in there. We started with all these different promotional ideas that had never been done at the NBA, and the NBA, in a couple years, in royalties only, which of course is a piece of net sales that was paid back to the league, made $45 million in trading cards.
Bill: Wow. Awesome.
Donna: I wondered why David Stern was so happy with me at the time. I didn’t realize that my team and I were bringing in big bucks, and was at the league during the best time you can imagine. I said it was Michael, Larry, Magic. It was the time of the Dream Team, that Karl Malone and John Stockton, and Patrick Ewing going to the Olympics for the first time. It was an incredible experience.
I was so lucky, and so blessed to be at this place that was growing in leaps and bounds, that David Stern was turning into just this mega-brand. The teams, the league, the sponsorships from the Coca-Cola brand to General Mills, and it was relationships that were just growing and growing. The business was doing so well, and the consumer products business was doing so well. I started in trading cards. I ended up working with Spalding, with Huffy, and with Nike, and companies that of course had brand names that everybody knew in your home.
The business was growing exponentially domestically and then globally. I was so lucky to be there during that time, and never thought I’d leave until I got a call 10 years in. By this time, I’m a Vice President there, asking me if I knew anyone, or maybe I would consider a job …
Bill: That’s the old headhunter trick, right?
Donna: It was the headhunter trick, working for a job in Stanford, Connecticut, and right away I knew. It was for an entertainment sports company. Now, at the time NBC was not up there. There was nobody up there but WWE, and I said, ‘I will not work for that crazy …’ WWF at the time. ‘I am not working for the McMahons. I don’t like wrestling. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know what wrestling is,’ I would say to them. ‘Come in and talk to us.’ I went in and talked to the recruiter just for curiosity’s sake. I had been at the NBA 10-plus years. They said, ‘Please go up, meet our people. Meet Linda McMahon. She is wonderful. I think you’ll really like her. You two will have a lot to talk about.’
Went up to Stanford, schlepped up on the train, and thinking, ‘How could I ever do this? It’s a commute. I don’t want to commute. I live around the corner from the NBA.’ Met Linda and she was incredible: smart, passionate, a good listener, which you don’t find a lot during an interview process. Wanted to know about me, wanted to know about my accolades during my time at the NBA, telling me the challenges that WWF, again at the time, what I could bring to the organization, and she really did wow me. I never thought I would leave the NBA, and again, long story short, after talking to Linda, after meeting Vince, I think …
Bill: I was going to say you had to meet her husband.
Donna: I only met him briefly. She was running the business part of the show at the time there. I say the show, I mean …
Bill: Yeah, right. The CEO title, right.
Donna: She had the CEO. I met Vince, I think at the TV studio. I can’t even remember. It was very brief. He said, ‘Linda loves you. We’d love to bring you on board.’ I said, ‘I need to think about it,’ and I decided to jump feet first in, and so after 10-plus years, I left the NBA. I started commuting up to Stanford, Connecticut. The first 6 months were torture. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Bill: Right. Titan Tower.
Donna: The Titan Tower, the flag is out there. Bought a car, was commuting from Manhattan, thought I’d stay a good couple years and then call it a day, and I was there 10 1/2 years.
Donna: I grew their consumer products business in leaps and bounds. They gave me the reins. They were wonderful to me. ‘Bring in the people you want. You have done such a great job at the NBA. We’re happy to give you, again, give you the reins. What do you need to do here?’ I said, ‘You need some different people on your staff. You need to grow certain areas. You need to curtail in some areas.’
The job was much bigger than the NBA, from licensing to merchandising, because they sold a ton of products at their venues and on web to publishing. They had a new publishing business and they had a magazine business, to the video game and video business, which I had not done at the NBA. They handed it over to me.
We grew the business, because I did hire a great team. My team and I, grew the business 250% over the course of those years that I was in consumer products there. We grew the international business. It had been very small, but what happened to WWE, you bring the TV products on the ground in Italy, in Spain, in France. You follow it up with bringing events there, and you introduce a consumer products business, and it was a slam dunk.
Bill: Sure. Action figures, video games, and the whole nine, right?
Donna: All the products, the whole nine yards, and we established relationships with retailers on the ground, the Tescos in the UK, to the Galeries Lafayette in France. We had a great business, and it was growing all over the world. Growing that business to the heights it grew, they promoted me from SVP to EVP, and then ultimately Vince asked me to take over the reins as Chief Operating Officer, which I had never expected to go in there and do that. That was in about 2008. I had been there 7 1/2 years, asked me to take over that role.
I had trepidation because Vince had gone through 4 or 5 COOs in a short amount of time, and why was I any different? But I had been there, and I knew the brands, and I knew the people, and I knew the culture and that made a difference. I took the role, and during that time I was named 2nd most powerful woman in sports by Forbes, which is such an accolade, and I was so proud of what I accomplished there working with Vince. Linda was gone by that point, and Shane and Stephanie. After 2 1/2 years in that role, it was time to move on and do my own thing. I worked 24/7 there. You know how they work there.
Bill: Yeah, they do.
Donna: I did not want to do that anymore, and to some degree I will say my position was marginalized. Vince likes to do things like Vince likes to do them, and I understand that. They treated me well for 10 1/2 years. I was ready to move on. Left WWE, did the consultancy thing for a while, worked on the Super Bowl that came to New York/New Jersey, worked for ThinkGeek for 6 months down in Virginia, as you guys know very well. Then came to Tough Mudder as a consultant, and after a couple of months as a consultant they asked me to stay on, and now I manage, as you mentioned, Consumer Products and Partnerships, and actually just the other day, I also took on event licensing for our global entrants outside the United States.
Bill: Terrific. What a story.
Donna: I’m exhausted telling you about it.
Bill: There’s so much to dig into, so I’m going to try to keep it straight and respect your time. NBA, WWE, both, as noted, during times of considerable growth and change for both organizations. I think, interestingly, if I have my dates right, that was a tough time for WWE from a ratings perspective. The acquisition, WCW happened, the so-called attitude era was over or ending.
Bill: Then there were challenges in the Pay-Per-View side, etc. but as you say, there were big growth in consumer products and global and everything else. How would you compare and contrast NBA and WWE? Strong executives with very different personal styles I guess.
Donna: Oh my goodness. Yeah.
Bill: Any great stories or differences, or just reflecting on that 20-year period?
Donna: It’s a question that I’ve been asked before. You worked for David Stern. You worked for Vince McMahon. I’m not sure either one would like to know that they’re both very similar, because I think they’re both different. David is very cerebral. Vince is one of the most creative people you will ever meet in your life, but they’re so powerful, they’re very opinionated, they like to run the business the way they like to run the business, but they are respectful of the people that work for them and for what they bring to the table. I will say both of them ran companies in not such a different fashion.
On the other hand, if you do screw up and then the rare screw-up, you will hear it from both of them. I remember one particular time, I always had what I call my J.I.C. folder. Okay, what the heck is a J.I.C. folder? The Just in Case folder. You never go to a meeting ill-prepared. There was one meeting I went to with David Stern. I will never forget that I was ill-prepared, and I heard it, and I got my tushy kicked. There was one meeting. There were probably a couple more with Vince, because I was in a more senior position at that time, so there was more of a relationship there than with David where I was a little bit lower down the post.
There were one or a couple of meetings with Vince where things did not go as smoothly as I would hope, I’ll leave it at that, and I got my butt kicked there, too. Again, the powerfulness of both of them was very evident in day-to-day business, but I do have to repeat that they were both very respectful of what I would bring to the table.
The organizations generally are different only because the product is different. The way the businesses were run is not all that different. You’re talking promoting 2 brands that were probably top of their game, ultimately. Ratings would come and go, especially, WWE is very tied to the talent that they have.
You get The Rock, who’s been in and out over the many years, but if there’s a sort of a lull in that top talent, you’ll find the ratings would have gone down a bit, but they’ve done such a great job of building superstars that they’d go back up. The NBA’s a little bit different, because you want to have your great teams in the championship, and if you have that, you’re pretty much assured of great ratings, but it’s a bigger organization, and it attracts, I would say, a larger audience just because the demos are greater. Both have done an unbelievable job internationally. I would say WWE, since I’m there, has grown exponentially on the international front.
The NBA has been in and out of countries since well before I was there. The McDonald’s Open was something we started way back when to bring the sport internationally, and now in China. Their business is big all over the world, so again, both businesses are very strong internationally. Stories. Do I have stories? I’d probably have to kill you if I told you any of my stories.
Bill: True enough.
Donna: I do have some fun stories. When I was at the NBA, I was on the committee to lead the team in designing the WNBA ball. You’ll recognize this, sort of the orange and oatmeal colored ball.
Bill: Yeah sure. Yeah, the color. Yeah, right. Rebecca Lobo, I remember that.
Donna: Right. Right. The league is now, I think it just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and when we were developing the ball we said, ‘We need the ball to be a little bit different than the NBA ball,’ but things you have to think about when you’re developing a product that’s going to be seen on television is that it has to be seen from far, from close, by the people that are watching the game, by viewing the game on television, and the people that are in the arena.
We developed probably 10 to 15 different balls, and we did a test on the floor of Madison Square Garden one morning, 20 years ago, whatever, prior to 20 years ago. The balls had been painted by a creative company. The inside guys designed it, but we had to have them paint it, and they had to dry. I had the balls delivered to my house, if you can imagine, by someone who could paint these balls. Sounds crazy. On a Sunday morning before the Knicks were playing, we went out to the Garden to do a test. We had the broadcast people with us, we had people in the stands that were our fans.
Bill: Right, pretending. Right.
Donna: We were passing and using these narrowed down to what, 6 or 7 balls. Well, what we didn’t realize is the paint wasn’t 100% dry on the balls, and we were making marks on the floor of the Garden before the game. I had people from the Garden’s, operations people, chasing me literally. ‘Donna, your team …’ Our team was a bunch of people from the NBA and WNBA … ‘Cannot bounce the balls on the floor. You’re ruining the floor.’
We had to pass to each other, but of course, we’d sneak in a dribble now and then because you needed to see and feel it as if it was a real game. Ultimately we filmed all this, we brought it back to David Stern, Russ Granik, who was working with David at the time, and Val Ackerman, who was the WNBA commissioner. We made our recommendation on the ball and we showed the video footage, and it was that ball that was chosen.
Bill: Super cool.
Donna: It was a time I’ll never forget because it was really fun, and they just did a piece in SportsBusiness Journal on the 20th anniversary, and talked about this. I said, ‘Where is my name in here? Because I led that charge on that thing.’
It was fun, and it was crazy, but I’m still proud when I see that ball. That’s a funny NBA/WNBA story. On WWE side, there are millions of them, but one that I can share is always the writers would write right up to the television program, as I’m sure you know, because it was live, and they did an amazing job at reacting to how consumers, fans, audience, people in the arenas, would react to the storylines. If they felt a storyline was going downhill because it wasn’t getting a positive or negative reaction, it was sort of just complacent …
Bill: That’s the worst. Right.
Donna: It’s the worst. They would change the storyline up, so there was a particular character, Jericho, who’s actually still in and out.
Bill: Still there.
Donna: He was wearing this silver shirt. Oh boy. He would wear it open, his chest would stick out. It was a silver shirt, and the shirt was getting a lot of positive reactions. My team and I, we were on the consumer products side, wanted to order the shirt to sell. We had to order it, but because it was a special fabric, and it wasn’t something we could get domestically, we ordered it from overseas, and we ordered a particular number. It was a fairly expensive shirt. On a Monday night, I was at home watching Raw, and all of a sudden I saw Jericho go to heel or bad guy. Bad guy stuff doesn’t sell.
I didn’t know Jericho was turning to a bad guy. He was so angry at whatever had transpired in this episode, he ripped his shirt off, he threw it on the floor, and all I could think of is, ‘Oh my God. I have 3,000 of those on the ocean coming to sell.’ Ultimately, I remember going to Vince and saying, ‘You changed the story. You changed the story.’ I can’t remember what we did, if we brought it back in, because he’d usually work with us on changing things up, but it was funny, things we didn’t expect, and I never certainly would have encountered anything like that at the NBA. Michael Jordan’s not ripping up a jersey.
Bill: Karl Malone turns heel! Right.
Donna: Funny, funny, it’s very different situations that would transpire there.
Bill: Amazing. Tell us a little bit more about, for those in our audience who don’t know, a little bit more about Tough Mudder: its history, its present and its future.
Bill: That’s amazing.
Donna: The first event they advertised via Facebook only, social media. They thought there were going to be 500 people. There were 5,000 people there.
Donna: Since then, in 2016, we’ll have more than 120 events, 2 million plus global participants to date. We raise money. Charity is so important to us, and we’ve raised over $12 million for various charities worldwide. All walks of life, athletic abilities have done the Tough Mudder. It’s epic challenges and it is a grueling course, but it’s a shared social experience, and it encourages camaraderie and teamwork. We even laugh, my people always remind me that more than 5,000 people have Tough Mudder logos permanently tattooed on their body. If you guys want to do this before you leave, I can set it up for you.
Bill: Nice. Yeah, right. There’s a room in the back or whatever.
Donna: Yeah, right. We have our tattoo room. It’s not a race. It’s a challenge, which makes us very different than other brands in this space, and that’s what our success is all about, because we bring people together to achieve these accomplishments and to overcome challenges. You can’t really do a Tough Mudder without being part of a team.
Our brand pillars are teamwork, fun – you got to have fun in this thing. You got to have grit, determination, it’s courage, and again, as I said, it’s personal accomplishment. We love what the brand stands for.
Our sponsor partners love that this is what we’re about. We reach millennials and beyond, and that’s why people want to work with us and be in business with us, and why people want to do a Tough Mudder, and do a Mini Mudder. We have a kids’ version that’s a mile long, and the little ones will do it, because they want to be like mom and dad, and then we have this World’s Toughest Mudder once a year, that is our one competitive event, so something for everyone, and stands for accomplishment, teamwork, things that are really important to us.
Bill: Getting a little dirty, too.
Donna: Getting a little muddy.
Bill: Generally speaking, key principles of your career, taking experience-based or athletic brands, monetizing them, expanding them geographically and categorically. What are the key principles, from your perspective, that make for great licensing or consumer product programs for brands like NBA, WWE, and now Tough Mudder?
Donna: Well, first of all, you need to have a brand, and I’ve been so lucky to be with brands that resonate with the audience. When I say audience, obviously Tough Mudder at this point is not a television brand, but it’s a lifestyle brand.
Bill: Sure. No question.
Donna: People know it, and they know it more than any of our competitors. They recognize it. They see the logo. I tell people I work here, and they know the brand, which at the NBA, yes, of course they knew the brand. The WWE, of course they knew the brand. We were televised all over the world, but this brand, in only 6 years … Tough Mudder is only in our 6th year and has done incredible things. We have had more than 2 million people doing our events. We are launching internationally now. This year we’ll have our first events in Shanghai and Dubai. We had events in Ireland. We do our own events in the United Kingdom and in Germany, but we also license the events. We did our first event in Mexico, but again, only 6 years old.
Bill: That’s amazing. Yeah.
Donna: To have the kind of recognition, because of the cool factor, and I think it’s just what your brand stands for. It makes all the difference. This brand is not about competitiveness. It’s about accomplishment. It’s about personal satisfaction. It’s all about teamwork. It’s about experiences. This Tough Mudder brand is about accomplishing extraordinary experiences, but you don’t have to be the most fit person in the world. You don’t have to be young. We have people that do this that are heavy-set, that want to tell a story.
Bill: This is sounding better for me, by the way, as you keep talking.
Donna: By the way, me too. Me too. I have to get out there and do it.
Bill: Heavy-set, old, check, check on my side.
Donna: Okay, you’re not old and you’re not heavy-set. You should see.
Bill: Thank you for that.
Donna: It’s life changing experiences, and as a result, it’s such a great story for us to tell. Are we going to be the brand that people know like the NBA? We’re not there yet, but I think with all the things we have lined up for this brand. I’m now working, as I mentioned to you, on the international brand. We’re working with IMG, one of the biggest sports entertainment companies in the world, and they’re the ones that are conducting the events in Dubai and in Shanghai. We’re looking at Korea for next year. We’re looking at Japan. We’re looking at Hong Kong.
This brand is going to be a global phenomenon. I can’t divulge too much information right now, but we are going to have a TV presence for the first time, so it’s going to take us beyond where we are now, and I think the brands have to mean something. This brand means something different than the NBA and WWE, which are entertainment, which are sports. You want to watch. You didn’t want people participating in WWE type events, because there was always a warning.
Bill: Right, no. Not in the backyard. Right.
Donna: Right. NBA, yes, great. Get grassroots event going, but this brand that I’m with now is something that is more about life changing experiences, and it feels so good to be able to talk to that. We’ve had people do this that are in wheelchairs. I can send you some footage that will just boggle your mind.
Bill: Wow. Yeah, I’d love it. That’s amazing.
Donna: I’m proud to be here and to represent something a little bit different, but still in that sort of that branding sports-esque lifestyle piece. It’s nice.
Bill: Well, as we said, the NBA was about teams but also about superstars, your Jordans, and WWE is a superstar factory. The superstars here would seem to be our brothers and sisters, ourselves, people we know.
Donna: That’s right.
Bill: This is a brand, as you say, without massive TV clearance but the sheer voice on social media when people complete these is amazing, and to grow in 6 years in grassroots ways is a testament to all this brand means and has within it.
Donna: It is. It’s amazing. I think they have 5 million Facebook fans. It’s 6 years. Sometimes I forget that we’re somewhat of a startup. I guess I wouldn’t say we’re a baby anymore. It’s more like a high school kid or a middle school kid, but the stuff that has been done here under Will Dean, who is the founder, is incredible. I will say they started off here with just a few people and a few young people that were going to kick this thing off and figure it out. Will’s first event, Will and his business partner at the time, promoted it only on Facebook. They expected to get 500 people. They were all set for an event with 500 people. 5,000 people showed up to that first event.
Bill: That’s amazing.
Donna: He said, ‘I think we have something here. This could be something greater.’ Here it is, 6 years in now, where they’ve hired more senior people to help lead this thing. Our CMO comes from Club Med. I almost forgot, comes from the Club Med world, which is a serious marketing brand.
Bill: Oh, nice. Great brand. I’m going to be there in a week, Florida.
Donna: Oh. Well, enjoy.
Bill: Tell him.
Donna: I will tell him. We have people here that are … One of our senior people, Adam Slutsky, who’s the President, was one of the original founders of Moviefone, so these are people that come from serious backgrounds, that aren’t now kids that are joining because this is a cool brand. We think it’s a cool brand, but we’ve done other things, and we can bring more … When I say seriousness, I don’t talk to the brand as much as to the business practices around it. It’s just been a terrific experience for me, and fun, too. A lot of fun.
Bill: It has to be. In terms of what comes next, and I know you’re constrained from telling us certain things, but this seems to be tailor-made for some of the things you’ve done in your career elsewhere, consumer products and partnerships. It seems to be tailor-made as you allude, in a very tempting way, toward a bigger entertainment presence. Similar templates, in terms of how this grows, based on what you’ve done elsewhere?
Donna: I think there is some similarity. I think the one thing we have to remember with this brand is at its heart it’s always going to be an event series. What do we do to take this event series and take it to the next level, and take more of that lifestyle piece, and bring it to more people who don’t necessarily know of it or want to do something like this? Maybe they haven’t heard of this in Shanghai. How do we modify it so that the cultural norms there, that it makes sense? Are they used to going 2 hours, because we need 400 acres, at least, so they have to travel to get to these events. We have people that stay the whole weekend.
How do we communicate that in Shanghai, in Dubai, in Ireland, in Mexico, to have it make sense, but that they take away the same feeling and the same accomplishment, and the same teamwork? Those are things we work with local partners so that we can do that. We do have one event annually, the World’s Toughest Mudder, which has taken place in Vegas for the last couple of years. It’s 100 miles. It’s a loop of 5 miles with serious challenges. There you have to be fit.
Last year’s winner I think did 95 miles, and that is our one event that is a challenge, and how do we take that and make elements of it throughout the year? Because it’s a challenge and it is a competition. It’s the one competition. Does a competition make sense to put on television? Perhaps. We’re looking at that piece of it a little bit differently. How do we continue to tell our stories? We had one gentleman that lost his child at Newtown, in the shooting. The only way he and his wife sort of got themselves together again was to start to train and to get people to donate against their running in a Tough Mudder.
There are so many personal stories about running, and some of them aren’t as heartbreaking and God, you can’t even think about what they went through, but there are people that, like I mentioned before, that are in wheelchairs or that want to lose weight and try to train for this 6 months before the event. We’ll help them do that. We’ll give them a path for training and we have ambassadors. Merrell is our presenting sponsor. There are ambassadors for Merrell and for us at Tough Mudder that help people get into shape, and we’ll do different things on-site or prior to being on-site to get people prepared to do this if they’re not. On the other hand, we get people that sign up 2 weeks before and say, ‘I’m going to give this a shot.’
Bill: The hell with it.
Donna: It’s very, very interesting, and a fun business model, and I think there’s room for consumer products, and we’re just getting into this, but we sell our products at venue and on the website. There’s more that we can do there, and the sponsor partners are big sponsors. Like I said, Merrell. We have Cellucor, who is our protein supplement company that is a relatively new company also and says, ‘Let’s work together. Your demos are great. Your millennials are great. We want to be in business with you.’ Old Spice is working with us, a Proctor & Gamble company that is relaunching their products and says, ‘Hey, we could relaunch with you and do a lot because you hit people that we want to hit every day, and you’ve got them all in one place when they come to your events.’
Bill: They’re a little irreverent, too. Yeah.
Donna: They are totally irreverent. We do a lot of content. It’s all about the content, and we do some fun stuff with them. Those sort of elements or veins that run through NBA, WWE, those are similar to what we do here in a little bit of a different fashion.
Bill: Sure. We can’t wait to see what happens you mentioned, and we’re sitting in this fishbowl conference room watching all these 20-something fit people walk around behind us. As you’ve come through NBA, WWE, and certainly here, you mentioned some of the differences in culture and leadership. Are there any particular approaches that are important to you as you’re building teams and driving culture, and taking the enthusiasm that exists here and professionalizing it? I don’t mean that negatively, but for the next chapter of growth and the next level of growth. What are some important cultural philosophies of yours?
Donna: For me, it’s all about being a leader, but giving everybody the credit they deserve. I say I’m part of the team. I lead their team of course, but when I meet with clients for the first time, it’s all about this is so and so who works with me. I will never say, ‘works for me.’ We are so much of a team here, which again, is one of the key tenets. It’s a core area of Tough Mudder. It is something that, it’s all about teamwork, and I will say this is a young organization, but I am so impressed with the passion and the intelligence and the dedication of the people here. Those are the things that are important to me when I build teams.
You want to have people that want to be part of this thing that aren’t just, not a stepping stone. It’s a lifestyle for them, and there are so many young people now that I think they feel things are owed to them, and I will say that is not how it is here at Tough Mudder. These people really want to work here to make a difference. To me, when you can’t make a difference anymore, you shouldn’t be someplace, and I say that about myself as well, and about everything I do in day-to-day life in any business.
I want to be a good leader for them, but I want them to be able to do things on their own, to be challenged, to be able to take this and learn from it and grow, and that’s what it’s been about for me in every place I’ve been. Again, I’m very lucky to have a team like that here. I brought … There’s a woman who works with me here who worked for me for 15 years at WWE, and she’s just fabulous. She’s not one of the 20-somethings. She’s not as old as I am, but she brings those core themes again, of teamwork, of let’s accomplish this thing together, which again, fit perfectly in the Tough Mudder world. It’s really important to let them grow and fly on their own, and that’s always been something that’s key to me.
Bill: Cool. As we close, and thank you so much for your insight and your time. I know we were late, because we went to the old office, but anyway, long story.
Donna: Yes. We’ll have to give you guys GPS or something.
Bill: Yes, exactly. Steve, our Executive Producer and cartographer …
Donna: It’s Steve’s fault.
Bill: Yeah. Well, Steve, you know.
Donna: He’s young and he can work with …
Bill: He’s young. He’ll figure it out. He never grew up with maps.
Donna: That’s right.
Bill: I think you got into it a little bit, but thinking back on your career path, and I’m sure, I think a portion of our listener base are folks who are early on and are seeking inspiration from hearing from brand and business builders. For those who have been inspired by what they’ve heard, which I’m sure is a ton of folks in our audience, are there a couple of … Starting out in the Liberal Arts, as did I, falling in love with this, broadly defined, though you have a slightly different focus than I do, but saying yes along the way, being persuadable … Other key touchstones as you think about your own growth as a professional, your own career, words of wisdom for those who are just embarking on their own path?
Donna: Yeah, that’s a question that I think my answer has changed over the years. My early answer, and still relevant, is do anything that you’re asked to do. Pack boxes, type, okay, everybody types now, but make copies. Do whatever is needed in a particular position, and I think that’s the same. What’s different now, my response is look people in the eye. Texting is not acceptable.
Bill: Yeah, some of the basic stuff. Right.
Donna: It’s so different now. My niece is 24, and she’s a smart, passionate person, but sometimes I wonder if she texts just too much. People don’t have those interpersonal skills anymore, and I think it is hugely important to look people in the eye, to be responsible, to respond via email or via handwritten note. That’s different than what it was back in the day. I can’t believe I say back in the day.
Bill: Get off my lawn! Right?
Donna: Right. It is so different, but I think it’s really important. I think you have to use those networking skills. Don’t be shy to ask mom and dad who they know. Don’t be too proud. Don’t think you’re owed things. You have to make your own way, and it is so competitive out there now, and so use the relationships that you build through school or through after-school, or through people who know people. Show that you’re willing to do almost anything, and again, use those interpersonal skills.
Look people in the eye, and then as you get going, make sure you can still make a difference, because if you can’t make a difference anymore, you don’t want to be complacent. You want to be able to grow in your career. You want to be intelligent and you want to be passionate, but it needs to still get you excited every day. When you’re not excited to go into work anymore, and you have that stomachache or that pit in your stomach because you don’t want to go in on a Sunday night, you can’t sleep, you know that it’s time to make that change. Just be smart about everything you do.
You’re so lucky to be in certain experiences, be it at Tough Mudder, be it at entry level job at Macy’s or at Bloomingdale’s. Enjoy your experience, learn from it, and then if you have to move on, you move on. Be prepared, not everything is going to go smooth along the way. You will have setbacks, you will be fired, you will lose your job, and it’s okay. None of that makes you a bad person or stupid, or not equipped to do something different. It’s happened to all of us. I was let go. It’s happened, and it’s okay. I’m happy to talk about it.
Bill: Yeah. Right, understood. Well, thank you so much for your time and your insight. We are already watching this brand, but certainly watching where it goes from here. It is, as you say, some of the assets at Tough Mudder and whatnot are, in a short period of time, an amazing depth of feeling and incredible potential thereby. Donna Goldsmith, thank you.
Donna: Thank you for having me, guys. I’ve really had fun.
Bill: Donna Goldsmith, one of a kind, a leader and certainly a pioneer when it comes to building licensing and consumer products programs for various types of branded properties. We’re really grateful for her time and her insight, and it was truly a pleasure. Hope you all agree. Three ways as always to give us a boost here at Real World Branding. I’ll go fast. One is to subscribe so you do not miss a week, through the App Store of your choice.
Another is to leave a rating also, if we’ve deserved it, job well done. We’d appreciate comments, skin is thick. That ties in with the third one, which is let’s keep the dialog going on Twitter, ideas for future guests, future topics, and general commentary, good, bad and ugly about how we’re doing here. We want this to be as valuable and interesting for you all as it is for us. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
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